Division 1 boys’ outlook

While the Division 1 girls’ race will be fought between many legit challengers, I don’t think the same can be said for the boys.

I remember covering an outstanding Division 1 final last year at Hart Center between St. John’s and North (mental note: Push for more D1 finals at the Hart – tremendous atmosphere you don’t get at WPI… plus good parking). I told North High coach Al Pettway after the game that he’d get his title next year – beating the Pioneers in the final. I see no reason to change that prediction nine months later.

So start the outcry now. The most controversial team years will be raising the trophy at the end of the year.

Let’s digress for a moment to shed some insight for those that don’t follow Central Mass. basketball…

It started for the most part last year when Burncoat stars Mark and Markese Berry were deemed academically ineligible to play for the Patriots.  However somewhere along the line, the Berry boys moved into the neighborhood of North High and were cleared to play for the Polar Bears. This raised a few eyebrows of rival coaches who thought it was rather convenient – but Pettway is still adamant it was just good fortune that they moved into his area and did the work to get eligible to play basketball and help North win some games. Hekind of enjoys the fact that other coaches are thinking he’s coming straight out of the movie “Blue Chips” and shepherding players from the city into his program.

Move on to this year with North coming off a close loss to St. John’s for the title and looking strong to contend. Worcester Academy comes knocking on his door for phenomenal talent Cedric Kuakumensah. The Hilltoppers are about to add him to their lineup when at the last second Kuakumensah decides to stay at North. Depending on what side of the argument you’re on, some think Pettway had a hand in convincing him to forgo WA for a run at the title. Kuakumensah is going to excel no matter where he is, so I don’t think anyone should begrudge him for wanting to stay at North for a chance at a title his junior year – and THEN going on to prep school.

About this time, stories start popping up about guard Emmanuel Tarwoe – and perhaps a few other players – being too old to play by MIAA standards (Rule 60). I think at one point I heard rumors that four of five starters needed a waiver to play for North this year. Pettway has denied those accusations and said Tarwoe turned 19 after September 1 (which the rule allows) and everyone else on his roster are 18 or under. In fact, Pettway said only one of his players needed (and received) a waiver to play – and that’s Quazay McClain.

McClain is an interesting case. He’s a very talented player – when he plays. A troubled path to North High is a good way to put it, as he started out at Holy Name, but didn’t finish the year. He moved on to South High, but lasted about a month. The rumors are out there as to why those two places didn’t work out – so things got interesting that after all this happened, he wound up at North High and planned to play basketball. This is about where the dividing line broke between the pro-North fans and the anti-North fans.  Some thought Pettway was right in giving McClain another chance, while others felt this was just over-the-line recruiting.

We covered their first game against South and people took to Telegram.com in droves. It was one of the most-viewed stories that day and at last glance 23 people commented on the story – on both sides of the argument. I’ve talked to a a handful of coaches who want to take North off the schedule for their perceived maneuvers.

So basically every game this year there will be that pocket of fans at a North High game who whisper things like, “Four of their players are about 20 years old” and “Needed waivers for this player” and starting the “North Junior College” chants.

However, in the eyes of the MIAA, those chants are unfounded – and Pettway and his Polar Bears are relishing their roles as villains this year.  Pettway and I talked about the rumors – he’s heard them all and then some – and he is willing to accept the “haters” as part of the game this year. He laughs at the assumption he’s a Pitino-level recruiter and he’s hanging out at boys’ clubs and city parks telling everyone that will listen that they just need to enroll at North and “he’ll take care of the rest.” He maintains giving McLean a chance to play is the best thing for him – after all, chances are he wouldn’t be anywhere near a classroom this year if basketball wasn’t on the line. He said McLean has a tremendous story to tell – warts and all – and deserves to be on that court. He can’t see why people are begrudging Kuakumensah for wanting to stay another year to fight for a title – especially when people are also taking shots at players like Naadir Tharpe or Tyler Strange for jumping to preps instead of high schools. Worcester Academy and other schools will be there for his senior year, too.

So it should be an interesting year on the hardcourt. I still am holding to my pick from last year that North beats St. John’s in the final this year. And I think the Polar Bears will have their heads held high when they get their trophy.

Markese Berry is back, and with weapons like Kuakumensah, Gaetano Iacovone, MacLean and others – who do you stop? North is 6-0 and looking very strong.

But what about the Pioneers? St. John’s lost a big (literally) piece with the graduation of Matt LaBove – who helped the Pioneers to the Division 1 state title last year. I think they’re going to be okay without him, but having LaBove to keep Kuakumensah in check could be the difference.

St. John’s still has the two most talented players in the area in David White and Richard Rodgers. They are phenomenal players and are two guys I’d recommend seeing at some point just to say you did in a few years. Rodgers just keeps getting better and if you ask coach Bob Foley about White, prepare to spend the next 15 minutes listening to him gush about his point guard. He sees the floor so well and was instrumental in finding LaBove and Rodgers and others last year.

However they key to this year’s title hopes could be Chad LaBove. LaBove is Matt’s younger brother and was a good role player the past few seasons, but he’s going to have to make “the leap” this year to keep the Pioneers in contention. He got hurt about a week ago in the Doherty game and the Pioneers have missed him. They got past Holy Name in the Laska Tournament, but fell to Doherty in a thriller, 60-58. LaBove’s presence gives St. John’s a nice dimension and he can take the pressure off Rodgers and White. They’re still 5-1 and look strong, but they’re a much better team with him, obviously.

Another player I like is Bennett Knowlton – who I think will be this year’s version of that complimentary player like an Anthony Trapasso. One of those unsung heroes. He and White make up a formidable backcourt. I think St. John’s will rebound from the Doherty loss and get right back on track in 2010.

However, after those two teams I see a drop-off of contenders. I think North and St. John’s are on that “tier one” – but who will they face at WPI? I think one of those teams will be the ones that knocked off the top-ranked Pioneers, Doherty.

The Highlanders are an interesting case this year. Which team will show up? The one that got blown out in the second half against St. John’s in a 56-37 loss? Or the one that played out of their minds to beat the Pioneers to win the Laska? It’s hard to say. I think Yawin Smallwood will dominate this year. He’s not going to miss a beat from football season, and with him and talented players like Eddie Capstick, Jr. and Curtis Hickson, the Highlanders are going to be there at the end. Joelle Katana and Andre Santana have also played really well to start the year, so Doherty is emerging as another one of those teams that will create matchup problems for other teams.

I think Fitchburg will be the other team that will be there. The Red Raiders have some solid players in Adam Vazquez and Nom Luangkhene, while guys like Byron Teague could give them the edge over their opponents. Fitchburg had a great showing in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament in New York, reaching the final before getting dealt their first loss of the year. I think the Red Raiders will keep rolling once they get back.

Marlboro could crash the party, as the Panthers look legit this year with Zach Auguste getting some Division 1 looks thanks to a nice four-inch growth spurt that has him at 6-foot-9. I’d have them as one of the best teams in the area, but they lost Canaan Severin to Worcester Academy in the offseason and that was a big piece. Still, with players like Carlos De la Cruz helping out Auguste – and Nevan Mitter-Burke close by, the Panthers should be one of the teams to beat this year.

Another team to watch this year is a young St. Peter-Marian team. They have some good sophomores in Tre Watson, Steve Flynn and Matt Mobley, while senior Kyle Brenner is going to be the heart and soul of this squad. The Guardians won five in a row before falling to Dedham and have a huge game tomorrow (Saturday) against St. John’s, so we’ll see just how good SPM will be this year.

Algonquin could also win some games this year, with a great 1-2 punch in Bobby Reynolds and Graham Turner. The Tomahawks are 4-1 after dropping their opener to Marlboro, but I want to wait to see what they have against Fitchburg (next Friday) before being sold on the alma-matter.

The best 1-4 team in the area is South High. The Colonels just got their first win against Burncoat, but have played a brutal schedule earlier against North (twice) and Marlboro. South is a talented bunch and they’re going to be there at the end. The Colonels will be that 12-8, 11-9 team that NOBODY will want ot play in the tournament. They play in one of the toughest leagues in Central Mass in the Inter-High – plus play a cross-over schedule with the CMC (which I think will be just a small bit better than the IH). Even their non-league slate is difficult with Southbridge, BMR and Wachusett. South is going to get better this year with guys like Hugh Daye and Emmanuel Feraud running things.

Tantasqua is up in Division 1 this year and the Warriors shouldn’t miss a beat. They have Jake Gubitose and Kyle White as well as a sharpshooting freshman in Corey Gatta (24 points in a win over Leicester). Tantasqua is 5-0 and looking pretty strong as the season gets interesting.

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